Pathetic patio policy

It’s back to the 80s! Bring on “Ashes to Ashes“! The British media are in a frenzy. The Eurocrats are once again trying to take away our hard-won freedoms! What were we fighting for at Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain? They’ll be telling us we can only have straight bananas next!

Yes, those EU parliamentarians are questioning the wisdom of heating the outdoors.

A more rational response would be to say “fair point mes fr√®res” (as “If…” might put it) and consider what might be a sensible policy response.

Let’s cut to the chase. Government edicts have a nasty habit of creating unintended adverse consequences. Indeed, much of the UK’s use of patio heaters is blamed on the recent ban on smoking in indoor spaces. The stated objective was to reduce passive smoking, in particular by bar staff. I won’t argue with that but the Government’s mistake was (as usual) to go further and try to tell us all what to do. Restricting people’s rights (i.e. to smoke) where these impinge on the rights of others (i.e. to breathe clean air) is one thing, but going any further than that is unjustifiable. Politicians appear to be the last to realise that the world has changed: no longer do people accept the authority of government to moralise and control their behaviour. Government should just ensure order. But I digress. In this instance, it’s quite clear that indoor smoking rooms (separately ventilated and away from where drinks are served) should have been allowed. And I haven’t even yet mentioned the light pollution, noise pollution, (and outdoor smoke and pavement congestion) I have been subjected to since the ban.

Sometimes even the “unintended” part of the phrase “unintended consequences” is barely audible. The EU, for example, wants 20% renewable energy by 2020. This is supposed to help us towards reducing GHG emissions by 20% by 2020 (or something). Never mind that biofuels – which increase GHG emissions – count towards the 20% renewables, but nuclear power – which reduces GHG emissions – doesn’t. Methinks the devious hands of vested interests too easily steer the guiding hand of government (if you get the gist).

There will also be other – perhaps truly unintended – consequences because of contradictions between the 20% renewables target and the 20% GHG reduction targets. Choices have to be made. If we invest in renewables then maybe we’ll invest less in efficiency. CHP – avoiding transmission losses – would (presumably) not count towards the 20% renewables target. And, a gripe I’ve made before (there’ll be a link when I remember where): policies such as the ludicrously expensive feed-in tariffs (which make the British Renewables Obligation look positively rational) employed in Germany and elsewhere on the Continent have the effect of diverting the world’s limited supply of solar panels to Northern Europe and away from regions where they would actually generate more energy.

The question of the precise unintended consequences of a ban on the sale of patio heaters was at the back of my mind at the weekend when I was sitting in a semi-enclosed outdoor area – in a chilly Rotterdam, as it happens. When I got up to leave, I realised that, as well as a patio-heater, there was another heat source behind me. Yes, a wall-mounted electric heater.

Now, until our electricity supply is decarbonised it is much more efficient to generate heat by burning gas (for example) locally, than in a power-station in order to produce electricity to turn back into heat. Losses of heat at the power-station and power during transmission (etc.) make heating with electricity 2.3 times as bad for global warming than using gas patio heaters, according to this thoughtful article in The Register.

The Register article suggests that:

“…depending on usage, electric heaters could be more efficient than LPG ones. If the area to be heated isn’t actually going to be occupied for most of the day, then electricity is probably better…”

But now I recollect my return journey to the UK, on an also chilly Sunday morning last weekend. I was in the waiting room at Bishop’s Stortford for an extended period, marvelling at the comparison of the organised incompetence that is rail transport in the UK (the train I was waiting for was apparently delayed by both a broken rail and a defective train) compared to the miraculous am-I-really-awake efficiency of the Dutch railways. There was an electric heater on the waiting-room wall. The only problem was that it was operated by a timer-switch. It stayed on for 5 minutes or so. Amusingly, and typically, there was no sign advertising that the switch was intended for customer operation. It was only after sitting shivering for 15 minutes that – in a moment of mild insubordination – I pressed it to see what would happen. Was the device on the wall actually a heater and not an air-conditioner? Would it work? Would the station staff come running?

The heater helped, but not that much. I thought at the time that the waiting room might have been warm had the heater been on continuously for some hours. The point is that The Register overstates the case for the electric heater. Heat on continuously warms the whole of the air in a room, the furniture, the walls, the ceiling and the floor. Heat is a cumulative thing. Flashing back to the enclosed outdoor space in Rotterdam, then, if you took away the patio heater, but wanted your customers to feel just as warm, you would need to put in just as much heat with additional electric (or other) heaters as the patio heaters are supplying now.

The correct policy (as ever) is not micromanagement by government, but policies aimed purely at increasing the cost of producing GHGs. Millions of consumers and businesses will then make choices – in ways government is unable to predict – that result in reduced GHG emissions. The invisible hand of the market will be much more effective than the clumsy hand of government.